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Book Review: Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

Publisher’s description

This hilarious and poignant #ownvoices tween debut about dealing with bullies, making friends, and the power of good books is a great next read for fans of Merci Suárez Changes Gears and John David Anderson.

Ahmed Aziz is having an epic year—epically bad.

After his dad gets sick, the family moves from Hawaii to Minnesota for his dad’s treatment. Even though his dad grew up there, Ahmed can’t imagine a worse place to live. He’s one of the only brown kids in his school. And as a proud slacker, Ahmed doesn’t want to deal with expectations from his new teachers.

Ahmed surprises himself by actually reading the assigned books for his English class: HolesBridge to Terabithia,and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Shockingly, he doesn’t hate them. Ahmed also starts learning about his uncle, who died before Ahmed was born. Getting bits and pieces of his family’s history might be the one upside of the move, as his dad’s health hangs in the balance and the school bully refuses to leave him alone. Will Ahmed ever warm to Minnesota?

Amanda’s thoughts

12-year-old sixth grader Ahmed Aziz (who is Indian American, but he says he just prefers to say “American” as he’s never even been to India) isn’t exactly excited to move from Hawaii to his dad’s hometown in Minnesota. But it’s one of the only places his dad can get an experimental treatment for his hepatitis, so off they go! It’s not an easy time for Ahmed, whose dad undergoes surgery and then spends a long and scary time recovering in the ICU. That alone would be enough. But he’s also in a new place, a new school.

Listen, sixth grade is a terrible time. I would like to erase the memory of having had to raise my own child through 6th and 7th grades. Bad times. Bad. And Ahmed is definitely not thrilled to be at a new school at this point in his life, especially once he becomes the target of his neighbor, Jack’s, bullying. Jack is horrible to Ahmed, but thankfully he has other new friends he’s made in his language arts class who stick up for him and help him feel less alone. Together, they read some modern classics of children’s lit and explore the common feelings and experiences that help make Ahmed feel less different, less alone. Ahmed also finally begins to learn more about his uncle, who died as a child from the same disease Ahmed’s father has now. Though things are often quite rough, all of these new connections help Ahmed forge ahead in middle school.

Ahmed’s story about courage, identity, and trying on personalities shows that while it may be okay to fake it till you make it, the real best thing is getting to just be who you are. He learns that he gets to define himself, that he gets to choose who he is. And when he finally has the perfect moment to exact his revenge on bully Jack, he learns that that self he wants to be is not someone who tears others down. A solid read full of heart, friendship, and growth.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063024892
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/22/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

2021 Middle Grade Books to Have on Your Radar (part two)

Have you looked at what’s coming up in the rest of 2021? So many excellent books!

This list is heavy on the contemporary fiction. It’s what I like best. I’m not saying there are no good fantasy or sci-fi or whatever books—this is just my personal list of anticipated reads. I scrolled through various lists for a looong time and eventually decided I had to stop adding things to my list and seeking out more information. I’m sure I missed plenty of things that I, personally, would be very excited about. Thank goodness the internet and publishers will make sure I don’t overlook great books as release dates get closer! Hop on over here to see the list from the first half of the year.

Hop in the comments or catch me on Twitter @CiteSomething and tell me what you are excited to read in the rest of 2021!

All descriptions from the publishers or Goodreads summaries.

Long Distance by Whitney Gardner (ISBN-13: 9781534455658 Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers Publication date: 06/29/2021, Ages 10+)

From the creator of Fake Blood comes another exceptionally charming middle grade graphic novel about friendships both near and far, far away.

Vega’s summer vacation is not going well.

When her parents decide it’s time to pack up and leave her hometown of Portland, Oregon, behind for boring Seattle, Washington, Vega is more than upset—she’s downright miserable. Forced to leave her one and only best friend, Halley, behind, Vega is convinced she’ll never make another friend again.

To help her settle into her new life in Seattle, her parents send Vega off to summer camp to make new friends. Except Vega is determined to get her old life back. But when her cellphone unexpectedly calls it quits and things at camp start getting stranger and stranger, Vega has no choice but to team up with her bunkmates to figure out what’s going on!

Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code by Bridget Farr (ISBN-13: 9780316461573 Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Publication date: 07/13/2021, Ages 8-12)

A timely and thought-provoking novel about one girl’s fight against gender inequality at her middle school and the lessons about her own privilege she learns along the way.

Margie Kelly’s perfect skirt was dress coded on her very first day of middle school. Upset and embarrassed, Margie spends the whole day wearing oversized gym shorts. So much for starting sixth grade with confidence!

But when Margie realizes that the dress code is only applied to the female students and not the boys, Margie gets mad. Really mad.

The dress code is keeping girls stuck in detention all day and away from learning. The boys act like they own the school. And the teachers turn a blind eye to the hypocrisies taking place in the halls, classrooms, and clubs. Something has to change! And Margie knows just how to do it. She’ll plan a school-wide protest with her best friend, Daniela, and fellow classmates Jamiya and Gloria.

But as Margie moves forward with her plans, she comes to realize some hard truths about herself. Will Margie recognize her own privilege and make meaningful change for all students?

Erik vs. Everything by Christina Uss (ISBN-13: 9780358126713 Publisher: HMH Books Publication date: 08/03/2021, Ages 8-12)

Nine-year-old Erik Sheepflattener’s life motto is Avoid Stuff, despite his family’s attempts to bring out his inner Viking. Can a worrier really become a warrior? In this silly, heartfelt, outrageously quirky novel for fans of Restartand Pay Attention, Carter Jones . . . why not be both?

Meet Erik Sheepflattener. Each member of his modern-day Viking-heritage family has a motto to live by. His parents have Family and Pride. His sisters have Conquer and Win. His grandfather has Turnip. But Erik is developing a motto he can truly believe in: Avoid Stuff.
Mostly, Erik’s fierce family ignores or discounts him, especially when he tries to say no. But while spending the summer with his rough-and-tumble cousins and older sister Brunhilde in Minnesota, axe-wielding Bru gets the idea to name and Conquer all of Erik’s fears. Will anyone hear him say no before it’s too late? And will Erik end up defined by his fears, or by his fearless family? 

Erik vs. Everything is an adventurous, humorous, and heartfelt romp about finding your place, speaking up for yourself, and pursuing what you love . . . even when it scares you.

Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi (ISBN-13: 9780062943255 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/07/2021, Ages 8-12)

At a time when we are all asking questions about identity, grief, and how to stand up for what is right, this book by the author of A Thousand Questions will hit home with young readers who love Hena Khan and Varian Johnson—or anyone struggling to understand recent U.S. history and how it still affects us today.  

Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win.

Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge.

With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?

Partly Cloudy by Tanita S. Davis (ISBN-13: 9780062937001 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/07/2021, Ages 9-12)

From award-winning author Tanita S. Davis comes a nuanced exploration of the microaggressions of middle school and a young Black girl named Madalyn who learns that being a good friend means dealing with the blue skies and the rain—and having the tough conversations on days that are partly cloudy. Perfect for fans of A Good Kind of Trouble and From the Desk of Zoe Washington.

Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it? After a terrible year, Madalyn needs clear skies desperately. Moving in with her great-uncle, Papa Lobo, and switching to a new school is just the first step.

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, though. Madalyn discovers she’s the only Black girl in her class, and while most of her classmates are friendly, assumptions lead to some serious storms.

Papa Lobo’s long-running feud with neighbor Mrs. Baylor brings wild weather of its own, and Madalyn wonders just how far things will go. But when fire threatens the community, Madalyn discovers that truly being neighborly means more than just staying on your side of the street— it means weathering tough conversations—and finding that together a family can pull through anything.

Award-winning author Tanita S. Davis shows us that life isn’t always clear, and that partly cloudy days still contain a bit of blue worth celebrating.

Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna by Alda P. Dobbs (ISBN-13: 9781728234656 Publisher: Sourcebooks Publication date: 09/14/2021, Ages 8-12)

Based on a true story, the tale of one girl’s perilous journey to cross the U.S. border and lead her family to safety during the Mexican Revolution

It is 1913, and twelve-year-old Petra Luna’s mama has died while the Revolution rages in Mexico. Before her papa is dragged away by soldiers, Petra vows to him that she will care for the family she has left—her abuelita, little sister Amelia, and baby brother Luisito—until they can be reunited. They flee north through the unforgiving desert as their town burns, searching for safe harbor in a world that offers none.

Each night when Petra closes her eyes, she holds her dreams close, especially her long-held desire to learn to read. Abuelita calls these barefoot dreams: “They’re like us barefoot peasants and indios—they’re not meant to go far.” But Petra refuses to listen. Through battlefields and deserts, hunger and fear, Petra will stop at nothing to keep her family safe and lead them to a better life across the U.S. border—a life where her barefoot dreams could finally become reality.

The Insiders by Mark Oshiro (ISBN-13: 9780063008106 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/21/2021, Ages 8-12)

Three kids who don’t belong. A room that shouldn’t exist. A year that will change everything.

Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead and Meg Medina, this debut middle grade novel from award-winning author Mark Oshiro is a hopeful and heartfelt coming-of-age story for anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t fit in.

San Francisco and Orangevale may be in the same state, but for Héctor Muñoz, they might as well be a million miles apart. Back home, being gay didn’t mean feeling different. At Héctor’s new school, he couldn’t feel more alone.

Most days, Héctor just wishes he could disappear. And he does. Right into the janitor’s closet. (Yes, he sees the irony.) But one day, when the door closes behind him, Héctor discovers he’s stumbled into a room that shouldn’t be possible. A room that connects him with two new friends from different corners of the country—and opens the door to a life-changing year full of magic, friendship, and adventure.

The Secret Garden on 81st Street: A Modern Graphic Retelling of The Secret Garden by Ivy Noelle Weir, Amber Padilla (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780316459709 Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Publication date: 09/28/2021 Series: Classic Graphic Remix Series #2, Ages 8-12)

The Secret Garden with a twist: in this follow-up to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, this full-color graphic novel moves Mary Lennox to a New York City brownstone, where she and her very first group of friends restore an abandoned rooftop garden…and her uncle’s heart.

Mary Lennox is a loner living in Silicon Valley. With her parents always working, video game and tech become her main source of entertainment and “friends.” When her parents pass away in a tragic accident, she moves to New York City to live with her uncle who she barely knows, and to her surprise, keeps a gadget free home. Looking for comfort in this strange, new reality, Mary discovers an abandoned rooftop garden and an even bigger secret…her cousin who suffers from anxiety. With the help of her new friends, Colin and Dickon, Mary works to restore the garden to its former glory while also learning to grieve, build real friendships, and grow.

Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee (ISBN-13: 9781534469181 Publisher: Aladdin Publication date: 09/28/2021, Ages 9-13)

From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.

So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.

Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up. 

After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt by Varian Johnson (ISBN-13: 9781338348538 Publisher: Scholastic, Inc. Publication date: 10/05/2021, Ages 8-12)

Literary powerhouse and Coretta Scott King Honor- and Boston Globe / Horn Book Honor-winning author of The Parker Inheritence Varian Johnson explores themes of toxic masculinity and family legacy in this heartfelt, hopeful story of one boy discovering what it really means to be a man.


Ten-year-old Anthony Joplin has made it to double digits! Which means he’s finally old enough to play in the spades tournament every Joplin Man before him seems to have won. So while Ant’s friends are stressing about fifth grade homework and girls, Ant only has one thing on his mind: how he’ll measure up to his father’s expectations at the card table.

Then Ant’s best friend gets grounded, and he’s forced to find another spades partner. And Shirley, the new girl in his class, isn’t exactly what he has in mind. She talks a whole lot of trash — way more than his old partner. Plus, he’s not sure that his father wants him playing with a girl. But she’s smart and tough and pretty, and knows every card trick in the book. So Ant decides to join forces with Shirley — and keep his plans a secret.

Only it turns out secrets are another Joplin Man tradition. And his father is hiding one so big it may tear their family apart…

Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui (ISBN-13: 9781338702064 Publisher: Scholastic, Inc. Publication date: 10/19/2021, Ages 8-12)

For fans of The First Rule of Punk and Save Me a SeatBarakah Beats is a sweet, powerful, and joyous novel about a Muslim girl who finds her voice on her own terms… by joining her school’s most popular boy band.

Twelve-year-old Nimra Sharif has spent her whole life in Islamic school, but now it’s time to go to “real school.”

Nimra’s nervous, but as long as she has Jenna, her best friend who already goes to the public school, she figures she can take on just about anything.

Unfortunately, middle school is hard. The teachers are mean, the schedule is confusing, and Jenna starts giving hijab-wearing Nimra the cold shoulder around the other kids.

Desperate to fit in and get back in Jenna’s good graces, Nimra accepts an unlikely invitation to join the school’s popular 8th grade boy band, Barakah Beats. The only problem is, Nimra was taught that music isn’t allowed in Islam, and she knows her parents would be disappointed if they found out. So she devises a simple plan: join the band, win Jenna back, then quietly drop out before her parents find out.

But dropping out of the band proves harder than expected. Not only is her plan to get Jenna back working, but Nimra really likes hanging out with the band — they value her contributions and respect how important her faith is to her. Then Barakah Beats signs up for a talent show to benefit refugees, and Nimra’s lies start to unravel. With the show only a few weeks away and Jenna’s friendship hanging in the balance, Nimra has to decide whether to betray her bandmates — or herself.

A-Okay by Jarad Greene (ISBN-13: 9780063032842 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 11/02/2021, Ages 10-13)

A-Okay by Jarad Greene is a vulnerable and heartfelt semi-autobiographical middle grade graphic novel about acne, identity, and finding your place.  

When Jay starts eighth grade with a few pimples he doesn’t think much of it at first…except to wonder if the embarrassing acne will disappear as quickly as it arrived. But when his acne goes from bad to worse, Jay’s prescribed a powerful medication that comes with some serious side effects. Regardless, he’s convinced it’ll all be worth it if clear skin is on the horizon!

Meanwhile, school isn’t going exactly as planned. All of Jay’s friends are in different classes; he has no one to sit with at lunch; his best friend, Brace, is avoiding him; and—to top it off—Jay doesn’t understand why he doesn’t share the same feelings two of his fellow classmates, a boy named Mark and a girl named Amy, have for him. 

Eighth grade can be tough, but Jay has to believe everything’s going to be a-okay…right?

Sunday Reflections: We Got To Write a New Ending to Our Story, and I Will Forever Be Grateful

Before we begin, I want to tell you that this is a story about parental loss. My father died just a few days ago (at the time that I wrote this) and what I will say is real and raw and if you, like me, are struggling with parental loss, you might want to look away. I respect that.

Karen at 18

This is my first father’s day without a dad and to be honest, I don’t know how to be a daughter in the world without a father. This isn’t even a totally true and accurate thing to say, because I definitely have some other father figures in my life. But this man, my Dad, is the only father who has known me since the moment and I was born and that loss feels significant. I feel a loss and an ache in my soul that can never be healed. My daddy is gone and I miss him.

It turns out, I am a storyteller. Maybe not a good one, but a storyteller none the less. So I want to tell you stories about my father. I want to tell you about what my daddy means to me.

In my 4 years in high school, I did not speak to my father. The reasons for that were valid and protective and difficult, but that’s only part of our story. Because the truth is, we got to write a new story in the years that followed and that story became the story that mattered, for us both. And it’s not the totality of my father’s story, many other people have their own stories and those stories matter too. These are just mine.

I could tell you all the stories about a little girl and a loving dad, and they would all be true. Learning to ride a bike and the first time I watched the movie Grease and my Dad laughed as I skipped around the block singing the songs. But those are just a part of our story. Important, but it’s what happened when I was an adult that really matters, at least to me. And then there were the dark years. And I am so thankful every day that our story did not end there. The fact that it didn’t end there, the fact that we got to write a new ending to our story, has changed everything about me and my life. I will forever be grateful.

Things Fall Apart

After I graduated high school, I moved out on my own and built my life around a boy, because I was 17 and that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. That didn’t work out. My Dad and I had just begun rebuilding a tenuous relationship and that changed everything for me. First, I went and visited him for a week and he was there for me. Then, a few months later, he flew to Texas and rented a mini van and we drove from Texas to California together as I tried to figure out what I was and who I wanted to be.

This would not be the only time he rescued me as an adult. He always managed to find a way to be there when I needed him. Always.

In California, I began a new life as a newly minted 18 year old and I met Timothy Jensen. That man would soon become my husband (well, 4 years later) and the father of my two amazing children. So as you can see, that cross country drive really did change everything about my life. Everything.

The first few years of our relationship were rocky. We weren’t always comfortable around each other. We didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know how to talk about the hurt we had each caused the other. My dad went to therapy with me. Which, if you knew my dad, was an amazingly big deal and truly a gift. And we grew closer. My dad proved to me that people could change and they could grow and relationships could heal. You have no idea what a gift that is.

After a few years Tim and I got engaged, moved to Ohio, and went to college together. We got married somewhere in the midst of that and my Dad came out and walked me down the aisle. Then he and my brother filled my car with a 50 lb. bag of bird seed and to be honest, years later we would still find birdseed in my car. This story isn’t important, it’s just one of my favorites. My Dad was many things, including a fun spirited guy.

Do not move, do not look

Around the time of Tim and I’s one year anniversary, Tim, my dad and I went hiking in the mountains of California. Tim did a very Tim like thing and fell 30 feet down the side of the mountain and it seemed to us both that there was no way he could survive that fall. So my Dad looked at me and yelled, “stay right there, do not move, do not come look.” And then he went to go look and see what had happened with Tim, trying to protect me from whatever was about to happen next. This would not be the last time that my Dad tried to protect me from whatever was going to happen next.

Tim shattered his knee cap, but was otherwise fine. Years later he told me that he was so scared that day that I was going to be a widow after only one year of marriage. He told me how much he worried in that instant about the hurt I would feel, it haunted him.

A Grandpa is Born

A newborn grandpa with a newborn Riley

My Dad was there to meet my first daughter. He was there when I lost a horrific pregnancy, having to terminate a failing pregnancy that was taking my life. And he was there when I gave birth to our second child. Every step of the way he held me emotionally, without judgment or scorn, and listened to me weep, wail, cry, and then celebrate. He walked a very delicate emotional road with me in the valley between the birth of my two children that was dark and complicated by tremendous loss. His love and support carried me through that darkness. He was always carrying me through the darkness and celebrating with me on the other side.

My Dad was a great dad to me in my adult years. But he was also an amazing grandpa. And he loved his grandkids so very much. His heart melted for them. Even though we lived in separate states, he always managed to be there when it mattered. He saw Riley in a karate competition, a musical, and more. He was there when Scout scored her first soccer goal and sat and watched her take a gymnastics class. Being a grandpa brought him to a place of joy, happiness and peace that I hope every human gets to experience.

When he couldn’t be there, we talked on Facetime and I would turn the camera around and he would watch Thing 2 do flips in the background and they always made sure to show him Charm. He claimed to hate that dog but secretly, they loved each other. Charm always snuggled up to him when he visited and you can trust a dog’s opinion of a person.

Mommy, Something’s Wrong with Daddy

A couple of years ago he came to visit and to see Riley in one of her high school musicals. It was my birthday, November 2019. That night, Tim went back to the school to pick Riley up and I got a phone call, “Mommy, something is wrong with Daddy.” And as I ran and jumped in my car, my Dad opened the passenger door and went with me to figure out how to help Tim. That night, he sat with me in the hospital as we waited to find out if Tim had had a stroke. Once again, my Dad was sitting there by my side trying to protect me from whatever was about to come next. As we went from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment to figure out what had happened to Tim, my Dad knew when every appointment was and called when we were leaving to find out what they had said. He loved Tim just as much as he loved me, and you could hear the concern in his voice.

Now, It’s My Turn

During the last few years, my Dad was sick a lot. First he had cancer and then he got Covid. There were several times when we rushed to catch a plane thinking it might be the last time we saw him. And then, miraculously, he survived.

The girls and I were with my Dad when the lockdown began and that was the last time I got to see him healthy and alive. It was my greatest fear that he would get Covid because his body was so battered from the cancer. As I sat there at the beginning of lockdown, looking at this man I loved with all of my heart, I feared it would be the last time that I saw him. I fucking hate that I was right.

Take a Walk with Me Dad

When I moved to Texas, I took a job in which I had an hour commute. I would leave work and call my Dad on the car phone (hands free!) and talk with him. We spent hours each week talking on the phone as I commuted to and from work. And then when lockdown hit, I began working from home and started walking my neighborhood. I would walk and we would talk and we would joke that we were taking a walk together. There is something beautiful about being on the phone with someone and all you can do is talk. My Dad and I talked deeply about our lives, our feelings, and the world around us. I got to know my Dad in ways I never could have imagined. We talked about his years of military service, what he thought about what was happening to our country, and shared our deepest hopes and darkest fears.

My stepmother became sick with Covid on Christmas Eve. My Dad on New Year’s Eve. I cried in the New Year begging God to please let my Dad survive Covid so that I could see him again. Ironically, my Dad did survive Covid after a several months long battle and we were thinking that he would be coming out soon for Riley’s graduation. It seemed so fitting and perfect, that he would survive cancer and Covid to then be reunited with this family that loved him so as he watched this child, his first grandchild, walk in graduation. After 4 long, grueling months where I did not know if I would ever get to see my Dad again, he bought tickets and we started joking about what he would wear to Riley’s graduation.

One week before he was supposed to come out he died from a car accident because the universe is random and often cruel.

Going through Riley’s graduation without my father was one of the hardest moments of my life. He had fought so hard to survive because he was full of pride and joy and love and he wanted to celebrate his first grandchild graduating from high school. And I thought he would be there. He should have been there. It will never be fair that he wasn’t.

For This New Ending, I am Thankful . . .

But there is a part of me that can’t be bitter because my Dad and I, we got to write a new ending to our story. In the last 30 years he and I became very close. That’s the part that hurts the most, I don’t know who I’m going to call anymore. I don’t know who is going to sit beside me and protect me from whatever is about to come next. Who is going to hold my hand when Tim does the next Tim like thing. Who is going to take a walk with me. Who is going to love my children the way that this man did.

My Dad, making Thing 2 laugh

I don’t know how to do what comes next. I am a daughter in the world without a father and that loss feels like a gaping chasm inside my soul. I feel blessed beyond measure that we got to write a new ending to our story, but I wasn’t ready for it to end. I still need him to hold my hand and answer the phone and sit with me and protect me from whatever is about to happen next. I need him to drive home with me and walk this neighborhood with me and share his soul with me. But now there is no one to sit with me and protect me from whatever this next is, not in the way a father can. And what happens when that next is the loss of your father . . .

My Dad had long hair and rode motorcycles. He was a Vet. He gardened and made pie from scratch with the berries he grew in his garden. He loved fiercely. Was extremely ethical. And he taught me that we all contain multitudes and that you should not judge a person by their outward appearance and that people are struggling with things you may never know. He taught me you could choose to be better, to do better, and to heal. He taught me that sometimes, if you are lucky, you get a happy ending. I’m thankful for my happy ending.

If you are reading this, I thank you. I have just come back from the memorial service of my Dad and have just survived my first Father’s day without being able to call him on the phone and wish him a happy day. I am thankful every day for the man that he became. For the family that he built for us. For the grandfather that he was to my two beautiful daughters. For the father in law he was to my amazing if not overly accident prone husband. I’m so sad every day that he is dead, but I am so proud that he died a good man, a loved man, and a loving man. I am so proud that I got to call him Dad. I will never not miss him.

If I was going to tell teenage Karen anything, it would be this: sometimes, when you’re lucky, you get to write a new ending to your story.

Cindy Crushes Programming: Virtual Author Visits, by Teen Librarian Cindy Shutts

We, at the White Oak Library, have had two virtual author visits, one by local author, Diana Estell, and Alex Sanchez last Saturday. Having author visits virtually is a lot of fun and something we look forward to doing again. Faith Healy, our Crest Hill Branch Teen Librarian, hosted them. I invited her to give us some tips.

  1. How do you set up author visits?

Well, each author visit was a bit different. The first one was a local author, Diana Estell, who reached out to me and I thought it would be a good virtual program to offer our teens to see how someone from our area can be an author. The local author was happy to do the event for free, so I definitely recommend that if you know of local authors, reach out  to them.  The other, Alex Sanchez, I reached out to. A co-worker had told me he did a few virtual visits for libraries and I should reach out. I was excited especially when I realized he had written one of my favorite GN that I have read in 2020. You Brought Me the Ocean.  From there, I emailed him not thinking I would hear back at all, but got an email the next day. We worked out dates, prices, times. I tried to make it as easy for him as for me. He was great to work with and always got back within 24 hours.

  1. We use Zoom, What setting do we use to help keep the authors safe from Zoom bombing?

For Zoom we used the webinar setting, not my favorite setting, but authors tend to prefer it. It allows for them to be the viewpoint without a bunch of cameras distracting the audience. My issue with it is that it fails to notify you when the audience enters. When we first did it, we were casually talking until someone typed in chat that they could see us. I always do Zoom events with at least one other co-worker. One person focuses on talking to the author, the other can look over chat and kick out anyone who is being negative.  Make sure when in the webinar you make the second person your co-host so they have that power.

  1. What types of questions do you like to ask? Do you go over them with the author beforehand? 

Coming up with questions is the worst part about doing author visits, at least for me. You want to do interesting questions, but keep them relevant to the author, but have them be interesting to the audience. You don’t want to be intrusive at the same time. You are trying to get them to open up.  A lot of authors do so many of these events that you want some questions about the writing process, but you don’t want every question to be one they have heard before. I saw so many articles and websites about what questions to not ask authors and what are interesting author questions.

One thing that helps me is finding articles/interviews that the author did and seeing what questions they gave really in depth answers, one or more that is vague and use that as a starting point to build off of. You want questions about the writing process, but also questions that help the audience know that person. Even something silly like their favorite beverage is a good ice breaker. I also always send off the list of questions to the authors so they have a chance to come up with answers or have an idea about what to talk about as well as let me know if they are uncomfortable with answering any questions. I always put the author’s comfort level first. Don’t forget you always have audience questions. If you feel like a topic was so heavy and want to lighten it up, go to the audience for any questions. This is where having 3 people is useful if you don’t have a responsive audience, that third co-worker can help by typing in a question.

  1. What is the most rewarding part of having an author visit virtual?

The audience response. For each author visit we always had one or more teens that this really left a definite impact on. For our local author, we had a teen interested in writing their own book in the future and it opened up the possibility for them, they asked so many questions. For Alex Sanchez, we had a fan who was grateful to get the opportunity to thank Alex for his books that help them. Small or large audience, if it made an impact on just one person it is worth it.

  1. Did you have any tech mishaps?

Our local author was my first time doing the webinar format and I had no idea what I was doing or why. At one point there were three people named Faith Healy in the event to my utter confusion. Plus as mentioned before we had no idea that there was no wait room like when doing a webinar. Before your webinar you can practice, which I think is a must for you so you know where everything is plus you can test your internet connection. We almost lost our author for a few seconds,  it was just a weak connection thankfully.

  1. What are your big tips for having virtual author visits?

Reach out to those super cool authors that you think you could never get. With virtual visits it makes the cost so much less, plus authors love libraries and are always willing to do it at a lower rate if possible. Instead of an hour, then you ask if they can do 45 minutes for less. For our program with Alex we offered a free copy of You Brought Me the Ocean as a raffle prize and incentive, I did ask Alex if he would mind sending a signed note or something simple. He sent an awesome bookplate with his signature and the illustrator’s too. I was so thrilled and happy to show it off at the program. Don’t expect freebies from the author though. I made sure Alex knew that he could say no and I would not be insulted. If you are not comfortable asking an author for more than the visit don’t. Be at your comfort level.

Also I would script out an introduction. Let the audience know who the author is, why they are important and show off some of their books, especially ones in the collection. I made a powerpoint slide to show those off since I am a more visual person and to let Alex know we love his books! I only showed it as an introduction  and then took it down so we can focus on Alex. Instead of lecture format, I would do a more Q&A type of deal. Our audience enjoyed it when it flowed like a conversation rather than a lecture plus it was easier for us to input audience questions when it flowed that way. Some authors might be more comfortable with a lecture format though it all depends. I hope this helps, I think virtual visits are one of the few good things to emerge from the pandemic.

Thank you Faith for your time! I LOVED WORKING WITH YOU ON OUR AUTHOR VISITS. It was so much fun!

Cindy Shutts, MLIS

Cindy is passionate about teen services. She loves dogs, pro-wrestling, Fairy tales, mythology, and of course reading. Her favorite books are The Hate U Give, Catching FIre, The Royals, and everything by Cindy Pon. She loves spending times with her dog Harry Winston and her niece and nephew. Cindy Shutts is the Teen Services Librarian at the White Oak Library District in IL and she’ll be joining us to talk about teen programming. You can follow her on Twitter at @cindysku.

2021 YA Books To Have On Your Radar (part two)

Have you looked at what’s coming up in the rest of 2021? So many excellent books!

This list is heavy on the contemporary fiction. It’s what I like best. I’m not saying there are no good fantasy or sci-fi or whatever books—this is just my personal list of anticipated reads. I scrolled through various lists for a looong time and eventually decided I had to stop adding things to my list and seeking out more information. I’m sure I missed plenty of things that I, personally, would be very excited about. Thank goodness the internet and publishers will make sure I don’t overlook great books as release dates get closer! Hop on over here to see the list from the first half of the year.

Hop in the comments or catch me on Twitter @CiteSomething and tell me what you are excited to read in the rest of 2021!

All descriptions from the publishers or Goodreads summaries.

Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, Nicola Yoon (ISBN-13: 9780063088092 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 06/22/2021, Ages 13-17)

Six critically acclaimed, bestselling, and award-winning authors bring the glowing warmth and electricity of Black teen love to this interlinked novel of charming, hilarious, and heartwarming stories that shine a bright light through the dark.

A summer heatwave blankets New York City in darkness. But as the city is thrown into confusion, a different kind of electricity sparks…

A first meeting. 

Long-time friends. 

Bitter exes. 

And maybe the beginning of something new.

When the lights go out, people reveal hidden truths. Love blossoms, friendship transforms, and new possibilities take flight.

Beloved authors—Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon—celebrate the beauty of six couples and the unforgettable magic that can be found on a sweltering starry night in the city.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron (ISBN-13: 9781547603909 Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Publication date: 06/29/2021, Ages 13-17)

Darkness blooms in bestselling author Kalynn Bayron’s new contemporary fantasy about a girl with a unique and deadly power.

Briseis has a gift: she can grow plants from tiny seeds to rich blooms with a single touch.

When Briseis’s aunt dies and wills her a dilapidated estate in rural New York, Bri and her parents decide to leave Brooklyn behind for the summer. Hopefully there, surrounded by plants and flowers, Bri will finally learn to control her gift. But their new home is sinister in ways they could never have imagined—it comes with a specific set of instructions, an old-school apothecary, and a walled garden filled with the deadliest botanicals in the world that can only be entered by those who share Bri’s unique family lineage.

When strangers begin to arrive on their doorstep, asking for tinctures and elixirs, Bri learns she has a surprising talent for creating them. One of the visitors is Marie, a mysterious young woman who Bri befriends, only to find that Marie is keeping dark secrets about the history of the estate and its surrounding community. There is more to Bri’s sudden inheritance than she could have imagined, and she is determined to uncover it . . . until a nefarious group comes after her in search of a rare and dangerous immortality elixir. Up against a centuries-old curse and the deadliest plant on earth, Bri must harness her gift to protect herself and her family.

From the bestselling author of Cinderella Is Dead comes another inspiring and deeply compelling story about a young woman with the power to conquer the dark forces descending around her.

Summer in the City of Roses by Michelle Ruiz Keil (ISBN-13: 9781641291712 Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated Publication date: 07/06/2021, Ages 14-17)

Inspired by the Greek myth of Iphigenia and the Grimm fairy tale “Brother and Sister,” Michelle Ruiz Keil’s second novel follows two siblings torn apart and struggling to find each other in early ’90s Portland.

All her life, seventeen-year-old Iph has protected her sensitive younger brother, Orr. But this summer, with their mother gone at an artist residency, their father decides it’s time for fifteen-year-old Orr to toughen up at a wilderness boot camp. When their father brings Iph to a work gala in downtown Portland and breaks the news, Orr has already been sent away against his will. Furious at her father’s betrayal, Iph storms off and gets lost in the maze of Old Town. Enter George, a queer Robin Hood who swoops in on a bicycle, bow and arrow at the ready, offering Iph a place to hide out while she tracks down Orr. 

Orr, in the meantime, has escaped the camp and fallen in with The Furies, an all-girl punk band, and moves into the coat closet of their ramshackle pink house. In their first summer apart, Iph and Orr must learn to navigate their respective new spaces of music, romance, and sex-work activism—and find each other before a fantastical transformation fractures their family forever. 

Told through a lens of magical realism and steeped in myth, Summer in the City of Roses is a dazzling tale about the pain and beauty of growing up.

Radha & Jai’s Recipe for Romance by Nisha Sharma (ISBN-13: 9780553523294 Publisher: Random House Children’s Books Publication date: 07/13/2021, Ages 14-17)

To All the Boys I Loved Before meets World of Dance in this delectable love story that combines food, dance, and a hint of drama to cook up the perfect romance.

Radha is on the verge of becoming one of the greatest kathak dancers in the world . . . until a family betrayal costs her the biggest competition of her life. Now she has left her Chicago home behind to follow her stage mom to New Jersey. At the Princeton Academy of the Arts, Radha is determined to leave performing in her past and reinvent herself from scratch.

Jai is captain of the Bollywood Beats dance team, ranked first in his class, and is an overachiever with no college plans. Tight family funds means medical school is a pipe dream, which is why he wants to make the most out of high school. When Radha enters his life, he realizes she’s the exact ingredient he needs for a show-stopping senior year.

With careful choreography, both Radha and Jai will need to face their fears (and their families) if they want a taste of a happily ever after.

Vampires, Hearts & Other Dead Things by Margie Fuston (ISBN-13: 9781534474574 Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books Publication date: 08/24/2021, Ages 12-18)

In this heart-wrenching debut YA novel that’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtownmeets They Both Die at the End, a teen girl takes a trip to New Orleans with her estranged best friend to find a vampire to save her dying father.

Victoria and her dad have shared a love of the undead since the first vampire revealed his existence on live TV. Public fear soon drove the vampires back into hiding, yet Victoria and her father still dream about finding a vampire together. But when her dad is diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s clear that’s not going to happen. Instead, Victoria vows to find a vampire herself—so that she can become one and then save her father.

Armed with research, speculations, and desperation—and helped by her estranged best friend, Henry—Victoria travels to New Orleans in search of a miracle. There she meets Nicholas, a mysterious young man who might give her what she desires. But first, he needs Victoria to prove she loves life enough to live forever. 

She agrees to complete a series of challenges, from scarfing sugar-drenched beignets to singing with a jazz band, all to show she has what it takes to be immortal. But truly living while her father is dying feels like a betrayal. Victoria must figure out how to experience joy and grief at once, trusting all the while that Nicholas will hold up his end of the bargain…because the alternative is too impossible to imagine.

Your Life Has Been Delayed by Michelle I. Mason (ISBN-13: 9781547604081 Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Publication date: 08/24/2021, Ages 12-17)

Past and present collide in a captivating YA debut about a girl who takes off on a flight and lands . . . twenty-five years later.

When Jenny boards her flight back from New York, the biggest things on her mind are applying to Columbia and reuniting with her brand-new boyfriend. But when she and the other passengers disembark in St. Louis, they’re told that their plane disappeared-twenty-five years ago. Everyone thought they were dead.

The world has fast-forwarded. Three of her grandparents are gone, her parents are old, and her “little” brother is now an adult. There’s so much she’s missed out on, not the least iPhones, social media, and pop culture. When some surprising information comes to light, Jenny feels betrayed by her family and once-best friend. She’s also fighting her attraction to Dylan, a cute and kind classmate who has an unusual connection to her past. And then there’s the growing contingent of conspiracy theorists determined to prove that Flight 237 hides a sinister truth. Will Jenny figure out how to move forward, or will she always be stuck in the past?

Debut author Michelle I. Mason offers a smart and funny high-concept debut about the most unbelievable of life changes-and the parts of yourself that can always stay the same.

We Are Not Broken by George M Johnson (ISBN-13: 9780759554603 Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Publication date: 09/07/2021, Ages 14-18)

George M. Johnson, activist and bestselling author of All Boys Aren’t Blue, returns with a striking memoir that celebrates Black boyhood and brotherhood in all its glory.

This is the vibrant story of George, Garrett, Rall, and Rasul — four children raised by Nanny, their fiercely devoted grandmother. The boys hold one another close through early brushes with racism, memorable experiences at the family barbershop, and first loves and losses. And with Nanny at their center, they are never broken.

George M. Johnson capture the unique experience of growing up as a Black boy in America, and their rich family stories — exploring themes of vulnerability, sacrifice, and culture — are interspersed with touching letters from the grandchildren to their beloved matriarch. By turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, this personal account is destined to become a modern classic of emerging adulthood.

The Jasmine Project by Meredith Ireland (ISBN-13: 9781534477025 Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers Publication date: 09/07/2021, Ages 12-18)

Jenny Han meets The Bachelorette in this effervescent romantic comedy about a teen Korean American adoptee who unwittingly finds herself at the center of a competition for her heart, as orchestrated by her overbearing, loving family.

Jasmine Yap’s life is great. Well, it’s okay. She’s about to move in with her long-time boyfriend, Paul, before starting a nursing program at community college—all of which she mostly wants. But her stable world is turned upside down when she catches Paul cheating. To her giant, overprotective family, Paul’s loss is their golden ticket to showing Jasmine that she deserves much more. The only problem is, Jasmine refuses to meet anyone new.

But…what if the family set up a situation where she wouldn’t have to know? A secret Jasmine Project.

The plan is simple: use Jasmine’s graduation party as an opportunity for her to meet the most eligible teen bachelors in Orlando. There’s no pressure for Jasmine to choose anyone, of course, but the family hopes their meticulously curated choices will show Jasmine how she should be treated. And maybe one will win her heart.

But with the family fighting for their favorites, bachelors going rogue, and Paul wanting her back, the Jasmine Project may not end in love but total, heartbreaking disaster.

The Lost Girls: A Vampire Revenge Story by Sonia Hartl (ISBN-13: 9781645673149 Publisher: Page Street Publishing Publication date: 09/14/2021, Ages 14-17)

Getting over Your Vampire Ex is as Easy as Killing Him and Stealing His Girlfriend

Holly Liddell has been stuck with crimped hair since 1987 when she agreed to let her boyfriend, Elton, turn her into a vampire. But when he ditches her at a gas station a few decades into their eternity together, she realizes that being young forever actually means working graveyard shifts at Taco Bell, sleeping in seedy motels, and being supernaturally compelled to follow your ex from town to town—at least until Holly meets Elton’s other exes.

It seems that Holly isn’t the only girl Elton seduced into this wretched existence. He turned Ida in 1921, then Rose in 1954, and he abandoned them both before Holly was even born. Now Rose and Ida want to kill him before he can trick another girl into eternal adolescence, and they’ll need Holly’s help to do it. And once Holly starts falling for Elton’s vulnerable new conquest, Parker, she’ll do anything to save her.

To kill Elton for good, Holly and her friends will have to dig up their pasts, rob a bank, and reconcile with the people they’ve hurt in their search for eternal love. And to win the girl, Holly will have to convince Parker that she’s more than just Elton’s crazy ex—even though she is trying to kill him.

Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles (ISBN-13: 9781338734188 Publisher: Scholastic, Inc. Publication date: 09/21/2021, Ages 12+)

From one of the brightest and most acclaimed new lights in YA fiction, a fantastic new novel about a bi Black boy finding first love . . . and facing the return of the mother who abandoned his preacher family when he was nine.

There’s always been a hole in Gio’s life. Not because he’s into both guys and girls. Not because his father has some drinking issues. Not because his friends are always bringing him their drama. No, the hole in Gio’s life takes the shape of his birth mom, who left Gio, his brother, and his father when Gio was nine years old. For eight years, he never heard a word from her . . . and now, just as he’s started to get his life together, she’s back.

It’s hard for Gio to know what to do. Can he forgive her like she wants to be forgiven? Or should he tell her she lost her chance to be in his life? Complicating things further, Gio’s started to hang out with David, a new guy on the basketball team. Are they friends? More than friends? At first, Gio’s not sure . . . especially because he’s not sure what he wants from anyone right now.

There are no easy answers to love — whether it’s family love or friend love or romantic love. In Things We Couldn’t Say, Jay Coles, acclaimed author of Tyler Johnson Was Here, shows us a guy trying to navigate love in all its ambiguity — hoping at the other end he’ll be able to figure out who is and who he should be.

You’d Be Home Now by Kathleen Glasgow (ISBN-13: 9780525708049 Publisher: Random House Children’s Books Publication date: 09/28/2021, Ages 14-17)

From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Pieces comes a breathtaking story about a town, its tragedies, and the quiet beauty of everyday life.

For all of Emory’s life she’s been told who she is. In town she’s the rich one—the great-great-granddaughter of the mill’s founder. At school she’s hot Maddie Ward’s younger sister. And at home, she’s the good one, her stoner older brother Joey’s babysitter. Everything was turned on its head, though, when she and Joey were in the car accident that killed Candy MontClaire. The car accident that revealed just how bad Joey’s drug habit was. 

Four months later, Emmy’s junior year is starting, Joey is home from rehab, and the entire town of Mill Haven is still reeling from the accident. Everyone’s telling Emmy who she is, but so much has changed, how can she be the same person? Or was she ever that person at all? 

Mill Haven wants everyone to live one story, but Emmy’s beginning to see that people are more than they appear. Her brother, who might not be “cured,” the popular guy who lives next door, and most of all, many “ghostie” addicts who haunt the edges of the town. People spend so much time telling her who she is—it might be time to decide for herself.

Inspired by the American classic Our Town, You’d Be Home Now is Kathleen Glasgow’s glorious modern story of a town and the secret lives people live there. And the story of a girl, figuring out life in all its pain and beauty and struggle and joy.

Why We Fly by Kimberly Jones, Gilly Segal (ISBN-13: 9781492678922 Publisher: Sourcebooks Publication date: 10/05/2021, Ages 14-17)

From the New York Times bestselling authors of I’m Not Dying with You Tonightcomes a story about friendship, privilege, sports, and protest.

With a rocky start to senior year, cheerleaders and lifelong best friends Eleanor and Chanel have a lot on their minds. Eleanor is still in physical therapy months after a serious concussion from a failed cheer stunt. Chanel starts making questionable decisions to deal with the mounting pressure of college applications. But they have each other’s backs—just as always, until Eleanor’s new relationship with star quarterback Three starts a rift between them.

Then, the cheer squad decides to take a knee at the season’s first football game, and what seemed like a positive show of solidarity suddenly shines a national spotlight on the team—and becomes the reason for a larger fallout between the girls. As Eleanor and Chanel grapple with the weight of the consequences as well as their own problems, can the girls rely on the friendship they’ve always shared?

You Can Go Your Own Way by Eric Smith (ISBN-13: 9781335405685 Publisher: Inkyard Press Publication date: 11/02/2021, Ages 12+)

No one ever said love would be easy…but did they mention it would be freezing?

Adam Stillwater is in over his head. At least, that’s what his best friend would say. And his mom. And the guy who runs the hardware store down the street. But this pinball arcade is the only piece of his dad that Adam has left, and he’s determined to protect it from Philadelphia’s newest tech mogul, who wants to turn it into another one of his cold, lifeless gaming cafés.

Whitney Mitchell doesn’t know how she got here. Her parents split up. Her boyfriend dumped her. Her friends seem to have changed overnight. And now she’s spending her senior year running social media for her dad’s chain of super successful gaming cafés—which mostly consists of trading insults with that decrepit old pinball arcade across town.

But when a huge snowstorm hits, Adam and Whitney suddenly find themselves trapped inside the arcade. Cut off from their families, their worlds, and their responsibilities, the tension between them seems to melt away, leaving something else in its place. But what happens when the storm stops?

You’ve Reached Sam: A Novel by Dustin Thao (ISBN-13: 9781250762030 Publisher: St. Martin’s Publishing Group Publication date: 11/02/2021, Ages 12-18)

If I Stay meets Your Name in Dustin Thao’s You’ve Reached Sam, a heartfelt novel about love and loss and what it means to say goodbye.

How do you move forward when everything you love in on the line?

Seventeen-year-old Julie has her future all planned out—move out of her small town with her boyfriend Sam, attend college in the city, spend a summer in Japan. But then Sam dies. And everything changes. Desperate to hear his voice one more time, Julie calls Sam’s cellphone just to listen to his voicemail. And Sam picks up the phone.

What would you do if you had a second chance at goodbye?

Filled with a diverse cast of characters, the heartache of first love and loss, and the kind of friends that can get you through anything, plus a touch of magic, You’ve Reached Sam will make an instant connection with anyone looking for a big emotional romance of a read.

A Universe of Wishes: A We Need Diverse Books Anthology by Dhonielle Clayton (Editor) (ISBN-13: 9781984896209 Publisher: Random House Children’s Books Publication date: 12/08/2020, Ages 14-17)

From We Need Diverse Books, the organization behind Flying Lessons & Other Stories, comes a young adult fantasy short story collection featuring some of the best own-voices children’s authors, including New York Times bestselling authors Libba Bray (The Diviners), V. E. Schwab (A Darker Shade of Magic),Natalie C. Parker (Seafire), and many more. Edited by Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles).

In the fourth collaboration with We Need Diverse Books, fifteen award-winning and celebrated diverse authors deliver stories about a princess without need of a prince, a monster long misunderstood, memories that vanish with a spell, and voices that refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice. This powerful and inclusive collection contains a universe of wishes for a braver and more beautiful world.

AUTHORS INCLUDE: Samira Ahmed, Jenni Balch, Libba Bray, Dhonielle Clayton, Zoraida Córdova, Tessa Gratton, Kwame Mbalia, Anna-Marie McLemore, Tochi Onyebuchi, Mark Oshiro, Natalie C. Parker, Rebecca Roanhorse, V. E. Schwab, Tara Sim, Nic Stone

Book Review: Love & Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura

Publisher’s description

This delightfully disastrous queer YA rom-com is a perfect read for fans of Jenny Han, Morgan Matson, and Sandhya Menon.

When Nozomi Nagai pictured the ideal summer romance, a fake one wasn’t what she had in mind.

That was before she met the perfect girl. Willow is gorgeous, glamorous, and…heartbroken? And when she enlists Nozomi to pose as her new girlfriend to make her ex jealous, Nozomi is a willing volunteer.

Because Nozomi has a master plan of her own: one to show Willow she’s better than a stand-in, and turn their fauxmance into something real. But as the lies pile up, it’s not long before Nozomi’s schemes take a turn toward disaster…and maybe a chance at love she didn’t plan for.

Amanda’s thoughts

Will I ever get sick of the “fake dating” trope? Nope. Never. There’s just so much room for so many things to go wrong with this probably pretty awful idea. And in this book, things both go as planned and hoped for and in completely surprising (to the characters) directions.

Nozomi, who is queer and Japanese American, is excited to leave Illinois for the summer and spend it with her uncles in San Francisco, helping out at the museum where one of her uncles works. It’s a chance for a summer of transformation, where no one knows her and she can be/become whoever she feels like being. And after she meets Willow, who’s devastated from a recent breakup, the person Nozomi decides to become is Willow’s fake girlfriend. Maybe they can make Willow’s ex, Arden, realize what she’s missing out on. Except, uh-oh, Nozomi actually super likes Willow and hopes that the fake dating will lead to real dating. Definitely a great plan when the girl you’re fake dating is obsessively sad about her ex, right? Right….

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of other things going on. Nozomi’s parents are divorcing and there’s a lot she doesn’t know and a lot she needs to process. Her grandmother, also in San Francisco, is dealing with increasingly bad dementia and the family is trying to convince her to move to an assisted living complex. Nozomi loves her grandma but also knows that her grandma has held incredibly homophobic views and Nozomi worries she will never be able to let her grandma know her full self. And then there’s Dela, a surly teenage artist who Nozomi ends up spending a lot of time with after she accidentally ruins some of Dela’s art installation. Oh, and Dela is now dating Arden, Willow’s ex. Got all that?

The “natural disasters” part of this title is apt. So much of this book is like watching something bad coming from far away and being like, come on, you see this thing is going to come stir everything up or knock things over, get to safety! But instead of safety—making reasonable choices like not desperately hoping a girl hung up on her ex will like you—the characters just walk right into the oncoming storm. And you know what? That’s adolescence, right? And for a while things go okay. And even unexpectedly great. Maybe. Kind of. Because a weird thing that happens when you get excited because no one knows you and you can be anyone, the funny thing that you end up learning is that it’s always best to be yourself. That being who other people try to make you or pretending doesn’t feel good. Nozomi has to grapple with understanding what she actually wants. She has to think about how to be the best version of herself. And, most importantly, she learns that it’s okay to follow your heart, even when that path changes, and not to give up on people. Things don’t always go how you think they will and love doesn’t always solve everything. A great read with lots of depth, humor, and heart.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062991232
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

New Horror to Read This Summer; By Teen Contributor Riley Jensen

Here’s a look at some horror published in 2021 that you may want to check out. I’m a fan of some good horror and mystery/thriller/suspense, so I thought I would share some things on my TBR list.

The Woods Are Always Watching by Stephanie Perkins

A traditional backwoods horror story set–first page to last–in the woods of the Pisgah National Forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Two girls go backpacking in the woods. Things go very wrong.

And, then, their paths collide with a serial killer.

This one comes out on August 3, 2021

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

The Dark has been waiting for far too long, and it won’t stay hidden any longer.

Something is wrong in Snakebite, Oregon. Teenagers are disappearing, some turning up dead, the weather isn’t normal, and all fingers seem to point to TV’s most popular ghost hunters who have just returned to town. Logan Ortiz-Woodley, daughter of TV’s ParaSpectors, has never been to Snakebite before, but the moment she and her dads arrive, she starts to get the feeling that there’s more secrets buried here than they originally let on.

Ashley Barton’s boyfriend was the first teen to go missing, and she’s felt his presence ever since. But now that the Ortiz-Woodleys are in town, his ghost is following her and the only person Ashley can trust is the mysterious Logan. When Ashley and Logan team up to figure out who—or what—is haunting Snakebite, their investigation reveals truths about the town, their families, and themselves that neither of them are ready for. As the danger intensifies, they realize that their growing feelings for each other could be a light in the darkness.

This title also comes out on August 3, 2021

Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart

Divided by their order. United by their vengeance.

Iraya has spent her life in a cell, but every day brings her closer to freedom – and vengeance.

Jazmyne is the Queen’s daughter, but unlike her sister before her, she has no intention of dying to strengthen her mother’s power.

Sworn enemies, these two witches enter a precarious alliance to take down a mutual threat. But power is intoxicating, revenge is a bloody pursuit, and nothing is certain – except the lengths they will go to win this game.

This one came out in April 2021 and it’s a dark fantasy

The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky

New girl Rachel Chavez is eager to make a fresh start at Manchester Prep. But as one of the few scholarship kids, Rachel struggles to fit in, and when she gets caught up in a prank gone awry, she ends up with more enemies than friends.

To her surprise, however, the prank attracts the attention of the Mary Shelley Club, a secret club of students with one objective: come up with the scariest prank to orchestrate real fear. But as the pranks escalate, the competition turns cutthroat and takes on a life of its own.

When the tables are turned and someone targets the club itself, Rachel must track down the real-life monster in their midst . . . even if it means finally confronting the dark secrets from her past.

Editor’s Note: I just listened to this on audio and it’s really good. Lots of discussion of horror movies and horror tropes. Please note, it does deal with sexual assault for those who need to know.

This one came out in April 2021

The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest, near a gruesome crime scene. The only thing they remember: Their captor wore a painted-white mask.

To escape the haunting memories of this incident, the family flees their hometown. Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared under similar circumstances, and so he returns to their hometown to investigate… only to vanish as well.

Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and reconnects with her now estranged sister—Hwani comes to realize that the answer lies within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.

This one cam out in April 2021

Frank Morelli’s Playlist for his Novel, On the Way to Birdland

As the release date approaches for my new young adult novel, ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND, I keep getting asked: what inspired you to write this book?

The truth is, any time you string close to one hundred thousand words together into a cohesive story, the avenues of inspiration must be innumerable. In fact, there were so many streams of experience, knowledge, empathy, and emotion flowing through me as I wrote the first draft of ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to be completely conscious of all of them.

I can tell you, however, that my strongest source of passion for the literature I was composing at the time came in a language many of us may consider universal: the sweet, poetic symphony of music.

To do that I have to take you back a few years to 2005. That’s when I moved from New York City to my adopted hometown of High Point, North Carolina and found out, through some sheer act of fate, that this small, random furniture town in the rural South happened to flow with the same air once breathed by jazz legend John Coltrane. I knew right away I wouldn’t be able to rest until I dove headlong into the history and the music of such an essential, American icon, and I wanted to see if I could understand what it was, if anything, about what at first glance appears to be a pretty bland and generic town that may have inspired an artistic genius to move closer to his creations.

Not only did the process help me gain a visceral appreciation for an artist I now see as nothing less than a musical genius and a modern prophet, but his sound also allowed me to see patterns I never would have noticed before in the collective harmony of American music. And I found solace in the realization that it is in our music where we reflect all of the qualities that make us unique, both for better and for worse.

The following playlist is by no means an exhaustive list or an official soundtrack, but it captures the essence of the music I came in contact with time and again during my process, and that continued to play through my head as I wrote the initial draft of ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND. I hope you’ll give it a listen as your eyes peel across the pages of my new novel.

1. Dream a Little Dream of Me – Doris Day

There’s an obvious dreamlike quality to this song that brought me directly into the reeling mind of my protagonist, Cordell Wheaton, a sixteen-year-old boy on a journey to find his estranged brother, Travis, as he struggles to suppress the reverberating memories of a traumatic event.

2. Little Birdie – Vince Guaraldi Trio

As a young boy, I used to roll my eyes every time my father played a song on the radio that was older than two weeks, which included jazz music in any form. Writing ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND forced me to reflect on my own listening experiences with America’s most hallowed music creation, and I realized that the first time I ever recognized a jazz song it was while watching a Peanuts cartoon. Yes, kind of childish, but I was an actual child at the time…and this happened to be the song that welcomed me into the fold of jazz appreciation.

3. Colors – Black Pumas

This is my favorite band to come out in quite a long time, and I think it’s because I love how the Pumas are able to connect through the ages with their music. They provide listeners with a sound that is uniquely suited for the present, while reaching right back into the soulfulness of a Marvin Gaye or an Al Green.

4. My Favorite Things – John Coltrane

This old standard comes to life through the mouth of Coltrane’s saxophone in a way that no other song remake ever can. Compared to some of Coltrane’s later, more experimental music, which takes a bit of a trained ear to truly appreciate, this song grants the casual music-goer with an all-access pass to Coltrane’s musical genius. It also happens to be a song that represents the tight bond between my protagonist in On the Way to Birdland and his missing brother.

5. One More Night – Michael Kiwanuka

Another one of those recent musical artists who seems to be able to reach back into the ages of sound and filter back harmonies that fit the resounding rhythms of the moment.

6. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag – James Brown

The Godfather of Soul has always spoken to me just as much as he seems to speak to one of my favorite characters in ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND, a kind-hearted truck driver who goes by the road handle ‘Cowbird’ and helps Cordy Wheaton find a new direction in his life.

7. Crazy – Patsy Cline

Not only did this song help me to empathetically develop the fragile mental state of my protagonist, but it also served as inspiration for the creation of a struggling country music artist named Lula McBride, who’s just one of the many important mentors Cordy Wheaton meets on his journey.

8. Chasin’ the Bird – Charlie Parker

This playlist would be incomplete without a proper tribute to Charlie “Birdman” Parker, one of the greatest jazz artists of all time, a mentor to John Coltrane, and the impetus behind the famous Birdland Jazz Club in New York City.

9. Coat of Many Colors – Dolly Parton

I love how well this song captures an underlying theme in ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND about the hidden trials and tribulations we all have hidden just under the surface and how our differences actually make us stronger.

10. Bye Bye Blackbird – Miles Davis and John Coltrane

Even if you claim to not be a fan of jazz, I dare you not to like this legendary jazz standard played side-by-side by John Coltrane and one of his most important mentors, the illustrious Miles Davis.

11. On the Road Again – Willie Nelson

This song is Cordy Wheaton’s general anthem as he completes his Odyssey-like journey up and down the East Coast of the United States.

12. Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver

Like most of us, Cordy Wheaton wishes he were anywhere on Earth besides his hometown. But, as Cordy learns on his journey, sometimes it takes a few outside experiences to help us appreciate the treasures we have sitting right in our own backyards. It’s a lesson that just sounds better when John Denver sings it.

13. That Was Yesterday – Leon Bridges

Another present-day musical genius, this Leon Bridges song–both lyrically and harmonically–captures Cordy Wheaton’s ultimate realization as he approaches the end of his journey. To Birdland.

14. A Love Supreme, Pt. 1 – John Coltrane

This is the first part of Coltrane’s most widely celebrated and possibly most enigmatic jazz suite of the same name. It is a piece of music so far-reaching that it once inspired the creation of a church dedicated to its worship, and it remains to be one of the most revered pieces of music of all time as consistently cited by leading scholars on jazz. To me, it signifies the importance of spirituality in John Coltrane’s life, and it provides us with a window into the man’s devotion to studying and appreciating the common threads that bind together most of the world’s religions. It’s a piece of music that cements John Coltrane’s legacy as one of history’s great uniters.

15. Carolina in my Mind – James Taylor

This is the song that kept popping into my mind when I envisioned the closing credits beginning to roll if I’m ever lucky enough to see ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND up on the big screen. It’s a song that brings Cordy Wheaton right back to where he started, but with a new way of looking at the world around him, and a new way of valuing himself.

Meet the author

Frank Morelli is the author of the young adult novels On the Way to Birdland (2021) and No Sad Songs (2018), a YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers nominee and winner of an American Fiction Award for best coming of age story. His fiction and essays have appeared in various publications including The Saturday Evening PostCobalt ReviewPhiladelphia Stories, and Highlights Magazine. A Philadelphia native, Morelli now lives in High Point, North Carolina with his best friend and their four rescued fur babies.

Social Links:

@frankmoewriter on Twitter
@frankmorelliauthor on Instagram
frank.morelli.96343 on Facebook

Frank Morelli’s YouTube Channel

frankmorelliwrites.com – author website

Frank Morelli on Goodreads

fowbooks.com – publisher website

About On the Way to Birdland

Self-proclaimed teenage philosopher Cordell Wheaton lives in a sleepy, southern town where nothing ever happens; not since his hero, jazz musician John Coltrane, left some seventy years earlier to “follow the sound.” Cordy’s life has been unraveling since the night his father and his brother, Travis, exploded on each other. The night Travis’s addiction transformed him from budding musician into something entirely different. The night Travis took his saxophone and disappeared. When Cordy’s father falls ill, the sixteen-year-old vows to reunite the Wheaton family. He embarks on a modern-day odyssey with forty bucks in his pocket and a dream to find his brother and convince him to be Travis again—by taking him to a show at Birdland Jazz Club in New York City, and reminding him of the common bonds they share with their legendary hero. Cordy’s journey is soon haunted by ghostly visions, traumatic dreams, and disembodied voices that echo through his mind. He starts to wonder if the voices are those of the fates, guiding him toward his destiny—or if he’s losing his grip on reality.

ISBN-13: 9781947886056
Publisher: Fish Out of Water Books
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Life-Altering Stories: That book that got us thinking differently about fiction, Featuring Megan Freeman, Kalena Miller, Andrea Wang & Anuradha Rajurkar

We all have that one book. The one that cracked the world open, made you feel seen. The one that showed how inventive, deep, and powerful stories can be. The one got you dreaming about writing your own stories one day.

The Class of 2k Books chatted about that singular title that set us on the path of chasing our writerly dreams. Check out the conversation below with Megan Freeman (Alone), Kalena Miller (The Night When No One Had Sex), Andrea Wang (The Many Meanings of Meilan) and Anuradha Rajurkar (American Betiya, Knopf). 

Megan Freeman: Reading Karen Hesse’s verse novel Out of the Dust was life changing for me. I was teaching middle grade English at the time and was looking for books to include in our curriculum. I had never read a novel in verse before and even though I had been a poet for years, the idea of writing an entire novel in poetry had never occurred to me. I still think of it as a touchstone book and a shining example of how just a few carefully chosen words can have an enormous impact and provide everything a reader needs to enter a world and have their heart broken open.

Kalena Miller: When I finished reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I immediately sat down to write. As a teenager, I was a voracious reader, but it was The Book Thief that made me realize I needed to be a writer, too. The prose itself was so magical and powerful that I was filled with the desire to play with language myself. Over the years, I’ve discovered many books that similarly demonstrate the limitlessness of storytelling (We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng are recent examples), but The Book Thief was the first one that made me realize I needed to write fiction for young readers.

Andrea Wang: The Joy Luck Club blew me away. I hadn’t read a book with so much Chinese and Chinese American representation in it before — and with eight distinct points of view, too! I finally saw that I could be a writer and write about my own life experiences. It also opened my eyes to writing stories about my parents’ generation, about the love and loss they experienced in a different country. I love the idea of intersecting, intergenerational stories where the characters’ lived experiences can both harm and heal each other.

Anuradha Rajurkar: Andrea, The Joy Luck Club was so impactful to me, too, for so many of the same reasons. If I had to choose just one, the book that changed my worldview was Another Country by James Baldwin. The way he wrote about his intersectionality as a gay Black man in Harlem was unpredictably relatable to me, a brown girl of South Asian descent coming-of-age in the 80s in the Midwest. With searing prose and pitch-perfect dialogue and characterization, he handled the betrayals within our closest relationships in a way that made its delible mark upon my soul. This book revealed how to write about love, race, and culture in a way that felt honest, and got me dreaming about writing my own story one day. Another Country will forever be a part of me, undoing me in the very best of ways, even all these years later.

What story impacted your life and got you thinking differently about fiction? We’d love to add it to our TBR!

With love,

The Class of 2k Books

Buy links and more

Anuradha Rajurkar, author of American Betiya

Website: https://www.anuradharajurkar.com/

Purchase: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/607776/american-betiya-by-anuradha-d-rajurkar/

Andrea Wang, author of The Many Meanings of Meilan

Website: https://andreaywang.com/

Pre-order: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/635269/the-many-meanings-of-meilan-by-andrea-wang/9780593111284

Kalena Miller, author of The Night When No One Had Sex

Website: https://www.kalenamiller.com/

Pre-order: https://bookshop.org/books/the-night-when-no-one-had-sex/9780807556276

Megan Freeman, author of Alone

Website: https://www.meganefreeman.com/

Purchase: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Alone/Megan-E-Freeman/9781534467569


Music often plays a role in MG or YA novels. The music is nearly always new, whether it’s pop or rock or rap. A singer might be mentioned in the text itself, like Beyonce in FAT CHANCE, CHARLIE VEGA by Crystal Maldonado. Or the characters in a novel might audition for a Broadway musical, as in BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Tim Federle, or a school musical, as in CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY, by Steven Salvatore.      


Many novels have a playlist, a list of tunes that inspired the author, music they listened to while writing the book. Afterward, they share the playlist with fans.

My MG debut novel in verse, EVERYWHERE BLUE, takes a different approach.

Twelve-year-old Madrigal Lovato, nicknamed Maddie, loves music, math, and everything in its place. She is growing up in a musical family. Her mother teaches opera, her father is a piano tuner by day and a composer by night. There is always music in the house. And it’s always classical.

In EVERYWHERE BLUE, music represents emotions.

When Maddie’s beloved older brother, Strum, walks away from his college campus and vanishes, Maddie’s well-ordered world splinters apart. Her parents are always distracted by the search for Strum, and her sixteen-year-old sister Aria reacts by staying out late.

Maman stops humming and singing, Daddy stops playing classical records. The house falls silent.

Maddie continues to practice her oboe in her room alone. She plays the oboe in her school orchestra and music is her world. This is why I opened the book with Maddie walking to her after-school music lesson. The story begins in November, when darkness comes on early. Maddie also has seasonal affective disorder, so early darkness makes her sad. The music I mention reflects those feelings.

I tried to infuse every part of my novel with a piece of classical music, including “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg, “Largo” by Antonin Dvorak, “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber, “Ode to Joy” from Symphony No. 9 by Ludwig Von Beethoven, and more.

I describe how the music makes Maddie feel, so even if the reader doesn’t know the piece, they’ll know just how it can affect people. Whether it’s “the most haunting music I’ve ever heard” (“Adagio for Strings”) or “the brightest, most jubilant music I know” (“Ode to Joy”), music is a metaphor for Maddie’s emotions.

Readers may not be familiar with all the classical pieces I mention in the book. But many readers should know Peter and the Wolf, a musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev. He called it a “symphonic fairy tale for children.” It teaches young people the different instruments in an orchestra, by assigning them to characters in his tale. Peter is represented by the strings, his grandfather by the bassoon, A clarinet represents the cat, a flute represents the bird. And three French horns represent the wolf.

Finally, the oboe represents a duck, because, yes, an oboe sounds a lot like the quacking of a duck.

I played the oboe in junior high school. We even performed a student version of Peter and the Wolf and I had a brief solo. It’s been a long time, but I can still remember the crushed-leaf taste of the reed.

As I wrote and revised EVERYWHERE BLUE, music became more and more important to my theme. I realized the French horns’ forbidding, ominous music in Peter and the Wolf was perfect for Maddie’s concern over her missing brother, Strum, and could also symbolize her undiagnosed anxiety.

With each revision, I drew more and more on this recurring theme. Strum’s disappearance throws the family into chaos. Maddie realizes at one point, while listening to the violins play Peter’s theme, that Strum could be Peter. And she hopes he will escape from the wolf of whatever’s troubling him. 

French horns are mentioned throughout the novel, and they’re always forbidding, until Part 4, February, when Maddie begins to feel there is hope for finding Strum. Maddie longs for more daylight, and by February, the days are becoming longer. As she listens to Ravel’s Bolero, she realizes the French horns in that piece are not at all forbidding. They don’t threaten. They rise and swell. They lift her up.

Near the end of the novel, Maddie is getting ready for the school concert. And the verse and the music are full of hope.

Music in books can be healing. Music can soothe the soul. Music, in fact, can be a form of salvation.

Meet the author

Joanne Rossmassler Fritz grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, surrounded by books and music. She has worked in a publishing company, a school library, and the Children’s Department of a large independent bookstore. She’s been writing most of her life, but didn’t get serious about it until after she survived the first of two brain aneurysm ruptures in 2005. She and her husband live outside West Chester, PA, and are the parents of two grown sons.

Twitter: @JoanneRFritz

Instagram: @JoanneRossFritz

Website: https://www.joannerossmasslerfritz.com/

About Everywhere Blue

A brother’s disappearance turns one family upside down, revealing painful secrets that threaten the life they’ve always known. 

When twelve-year-old Maddie’s older brother vanishes from his college campus, her carefully ordered world falls apart. Nothing will fill the void of her beloved oldest sibling. Meanwhile Maddie’s older sister reacts by staying out late, and her parents are always distracted by the search for Strum. Drowning in grief and confusion, the family’s musical household falls silent.

Though Maddie is the youngest, she knows Strum better than anyone. He used to confide in her, sharing his fears about the climate crisis and their planet’s future. So, Maddie starts looking for clues: Was Strum unhappy? Were the arguments with their dad getting worse? Or could his disappearance have something to do with those endangered butterflies he loved . . .

Scared and on her own, Maddie picks up the pieces of her family’s fractured lives. Maybe her parents aren’t who she thought they were. Maybe her nervous thoughts and compulsive counting mean she needs help. And maybe finding Strum won’t solve everything—but she knows he’s out there, and she has to try.

This powerful debut novel in verse addresses the climate crisis, intergenerational discourse, and mental illness in an accessible, hopeful way. With a gorgeous narrative voice, Everywhere Blue is perfect for fans of Eventown and OCDaniel.

ISBN-13: 9780823448623
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Pages: 256
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years